Last Week Tonight returned from a 2-week break on Sunday night where host John Oliver shed light on an important but rarely discussed topic: public defenders. In theory, public defenders are defense attorneys provided to individuals accused of crimes who are unable to afford lawyers on their own. In practice, access to a public defender is exceptionally difficult, and, as Oliver explained, not always free.
Public defenders are probably best known from their cameo appearance in the Miranda rights, as the lawyers that will be provided in cases where the accused individual cannot afford a lawyer. As Oliver puts it, they're "the only people who have been to court more frequently than former child stars". Public defenders are chronically over-worked, under-appreciated, and, in some cases, are forced to work in dirty and unsafe buildings.
In Fresno, for example, public defenders are responsible for up to 1,000 cases per year, which works out to 3 cases per day. For comparison, state guidelines advise public defenders to take on no more than 150 cases per year. There is simply not enough time in the day for one person to prepare fair and adequate defenses for 3 cases per day. It can be challenging for a lawyer to remember the names of 3 different clients per day, let alone the details of 3 entirely different cases.
Oliver then spoke of the situation in New Orleans, where part-time public defenders have only 7 minutes per case to review the file, consider the legal facts, and prepare an adequate defense. In many cases, the people relying on public defenders are the same people who cannot afford to pay bail and are incarcerated pending a guilty plea or trial. 7 minutes is not enough time for anyone to make a decision that will affect another person for the rest of their life, and in a number of cases, people will plead guilty to crimes they did not commit just to go home.
In order to help with their budgetary shortfall, and to enable their public defenders to spend more time per case, the city of New Orleans has turned to crowdfunding. Their goal is to raise $50,000 to help with their budget shortfall. Their page asks for help to support "the only institution in New Orleans' criminal justice system empowered to protect and defend, rather than prosecute, poor New Orleanians". With only 4 days left, they've raised less than 20 percent of their funding goal. Oliver addressed this, and pointed out that:
No one should be in jail because a Kickstarter didn't meet its goal.
Oliver pointed out that "it's easy not to care" about this incredibly important issue. After all, many people carry bias and prejudice against the poor and against those who are accused of crimes. These false and prejudicial beliefs have set up a system that takes the most vulnerable people in society, and charges them for "access to a broken system". Something needs to change, and in order for that to happen, people need to be both aware and interested in the issue. Thankfully, the team at Last Week Tonight has a parody for that. The segment wrapped with an updated, more accurate version of the Miranda rights as read by some TVs best cops, such as Dennis Quaid, Sonja Sohn and Jeremy Sisto.
Check out the entire segment below and if you have a few dollars to spare, support your public defender's office.
This incredibly dysfunctional system is somehow "constitutional as fuck" and that needs to change.
Last Week Tonight returns in 2 weeks.